WASHINGTON – The Washington Capitals’ top young prospect brought hockey back to the nation’s capital with a pair of goals – and a monster check so fierce it dislodged a support beam.

Alexander Ovechkin became the first Capitals player to score twice in his NHL debut, and Washington beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2 in the league’s first game at the MCI Center in 550 days.

Dainius Zubrus also scored for the Capitals, and new captain Jeff Halpern had three assists in a game that included 18 penalties.

Dan Fritsche scored both goals for Columbus, twice as many as he had in his entire rookie season before the lockout. All five goals came in a 10-minute span in the second period.

The Capitals welcomed 16,325 fans – some still feeling jilted over the lockout that wiped out a season – to the 18,277-seat arena with a pregame street festival and an opening ceremony that looked like something out of the Olympic Games. The theme intertwined the return of hockey with the creation of the universe, and the players skated onto the ice carrying glowing, plastic torches.

“I am so excited for things to be back – last year was horrible,” said face-painted fan Amber Turbyne of Waldorf, Md. “I usually hold a grudge like something awful, but I’m too happy to have hockey back.”

They’ll be more excited now that they’ve seen what Ovechkin can do.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft wasted no time making his presence known. On his first shift, 40 seconds into the game, the 20-year-old Russian sideswiped Radoslav Suchy into the boards behind the Columbus net with such force that a beam along the boards fell to the ice. The game was delayed for a couple of minutes while the beam was replaced.

That was the one and only highlight of a dull first period that made it seems as if hockey should’ve stayed away, but Ovechkin and fellow 20-year-old Fritsche brought the game to life in the second period.

Fritsche took advantage of the new rule that allows the two-line pass by getting the puck from Gilbert Brule on what resembled a deep post pattern in football. Fritsche easily beat defenseman Matthew Biron to the puck to score the game’s first goal.

Ovechkin responded 23 seconds later, stroking a one-time from Halpern that beat goaltender Pascal Leclaire on the stick side. Ovechkin raised both hands and dropped to one knee as he was mugged by teammates to celebrate the first tally for the player often compared to a young Mario Lemieux.

Fritsche put in a rebound to make it 2-1 with the teams skating four-on-four three minutes later, but Ovechkin needed less than two minutes to tie the score again, knocking home a cross-crease pass from Halpern on a power play.

Halpern threaded another pass for his third assist, slotting the puck between a defenseman’s legs for Zubrus on a power play. The goal turned out to be the game-winner, with both teams wasting multiple power-play chances in a scoreless third period.

Notes: Counting the preseason, Ovechkin has six goals and three assists in his last three games. … Columbus defenseman Adam Foote played in his 800th NHL game.

AP-ES-10-05-05 2137EDT


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